This past month has been a real tragedy for comedy. First Sid Caesar, now Harold Ramis. As a writer, director, actor and producer, Ramis gave us some of the all-time greatest comedies. Yet few fully appreciate Ramis’s efforts to convey important legal principles in his films. In fact, he tackles everything from judicial ethics (e.g., Judge Smails in Caddyshack) to confidentiality (Dean Wormer’s “double-secret probation”), and even ediscovery (“Print is dead,” announced Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters).
Ramis even mounts a direct, and compelling, challenge to the merits of ABA Model Rule 1.10 regarding the imputation of conflicts. As lawyers know, Rule 1.10 provides that, where one lawyer in a firm is precluded from undertaking a representation because of a conflict of interest, that conflict is imputed to all other members of the firm, such that they are all similarly disqualified from the matter.
Which Ramis vehicle addresses this important legal concept? National Lampoon’s Animal House, of course. In arguing at a disciplinary hearing that the entire Delta brotherhood should not be blamed “for the behavior of a few sick perverted individuals,” rush chairman Eric Stratton eloquently captures the essence of the imputation rule — that by associating with others, an individual can be found to have assumed the obligations of the rest of the group.
For attorneys, that means that if one lawyer has a duty of loyalty to a client, then all of the lawyers in that firm have that same duty. But unlike fraternities, law firms have a mechanism by which they can potentially avoid imputation. Many (but not all) states’ versions of Rule 1.10 permit firms to avoid imputation by screening off the affected lawyer (ethical screens may also be erected as a condition to receiving a conflicts waiver from a client). When a firm establishes a screen, screening memos should be issued setting forth the obligations and prohibitions relating to that particular client or matter. But take heed; a screening memo is not self-effectuating. It is imperative that everyone — regardless of whether one is working on the matter that is the subject of the screen — reviews, and complies with, the obligations and prohibitions set forth in a screening memo. An individual’s failure to abide by a screen can have harsh consequences for a law form, including disqualification, termination and disgorgement of fees.
For this reason, screening memos should be written in plain English so they can easily be understood. But if you’re still having trouble with them, take a look at the attached tutorial, yet another one of Ramis’s contributions to the betterment of the legal profession.